Monday, February 25, 2008

Owning an American Legend

In 1900, wild horses, numbered in the millions, roamed North America's praries, moutains, and deserts. America's Mustangs were mostly decended from horses brought by early European explorers--particularly the Spanish, but reflected an impressive mixture of genetic types from the smaller Spanish Barb, to Percheron and draft type stock. For many years, a frustrated Spanish government turned out thousands of wild Spanish-bred horses along the Rio Grande hoping the Indians would capture them instead of stealing from the Spanish missions. Today's Mustang herds, restricted to specific herd management areas by modern development, continue to thrive, but in much smaller numbers. The BLM estimates that 29,000 Mustangs and burros currently exist in the wild and they have 31,500 animals in holding facilities. Since the controversial passage of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, about 218,000 wild horses and burros have been placed in private hands through the BLM's adoption process.
Tried, trued and tempered in Nature's selective furnace, the Mustang is iron tough. While Americans were busy breeding domestic horses for specific jobs, the creative forces at work in the wild were building a naturally hardy animal that could endure a much harsher world with poorer food and more distant water holes. While the story of Hildalgo is probably just legend, there is little doubt by those who ride the Mustang that it can out-distance its domestic counterpart. The Long Riders' Guild report some modern distance rides by Mustangs, including a 3,000 miler in 2001.

We adopted two American Legends in September, 2006 from the Sulphur herd. Our experience with the BLM and these tough little horses has been completely positive. One, a scrawny, buttermilk-dunn weanling named BarbWire, gentled right down within a couple of hours. She has the softest temperment of all our horses and she should be old enough to start riding this spring.

The other, a 4 year old line-back dunn we named Kissin' Kate Barlow, made me wonder if I had made a monumental mistake. I watched the BLM handlers load every horse into buyers' trailers the day of the sale. Kate was the only Mustang to try climbing out of the 8 foot loading chute. When we got her home, she showed the most fear and the most aggression to pressure. She would go to a corner and spin circles whenever anyone came near her pen. She was WILD! I finally sent her to Neil Childs, a professional trainer in Fountain Green for two months--and while she was there, I got to go help with her training. The day I brought her home and saddled her up she threw me off the first two tries--I stuck her on her third valiant try and she has never bucked since. In the short year that followed, she carried my family and me all over Snow Canyon, Pine Mountain, Zion Nat'l Park, the Uintas, Escalante's 50 Mile Mesa, parades, Grand Entries, and many other places.

Inside Kate's chest beats the biggest heart of any horse I've ridden. She's so little, my knuckles nearly drag the ground. But she can carry my 200 lbs over ground that surprises most of the riders I encounter. Kate is agile, flexible, and with a ten inch overstep--she's a very smooth ride. I hate to be guilty of personifying my animals, but I swear she is the happiest, most exuberant and playful horse on my place. I've seen her smile and lay down in the middle of a stream or sand bar to joyfully roll with rider, saddle and all. Whatever you want to call it--she's got loads more personality, wit and smarts than any of the quarter horse types we own.

If I had to sell her, today's market might struggle to bring me $500 dollars; but I'm not sure I'd take $10,000 if you were begging me cash in hand. From wild to mild in a few short months; from mistake to brilliant stroke of genious--this timeless American Legend is a priceless classic.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Calamity Jane's CompAss

The following information about Calamity Jane is from a statement concerning her by Buffalo Bill: "Her old nickname was received in 1872 in a peculiar way. She was at that time at Goose Creek Camp, S.D., where Captain Egan and a small body of men were stationed. The Indians were giving a lot of trouble, and there was much fighting. "One day Captain Egan was surrounded by a large band. They were fighting desperately for their lives, but were being steadily, but surely slaughtered. Captain Egan was wounded and had fallen off his horse. "In the midst of the fighting, it is said, the woman rode into the very center of the trouble, dismounted, lifted the captain in front of her on her saddle, and dashed out. They got through untouched, but every other man in the gallant company was slaughtered. "When he recovered, Captain Egan laughingly spoke of Miss Canary as 'Calamity Jane,' and the name has clung to her ever since; The Livingstone Enterprise, August 8, 1903, "Calamity is Dead", as quoted in "Calamity's in Town," p.32, by Bill and Doris Whithorn, 510 S. 8th St., Livingston, MT 59047

Washington County's beauty arises from the tectonic clash between three giants. The confluence of the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin gives birth to some of the most breathtaking scenery on Earth--a dizzying variety of lava flows, monolithic thrones, arches, brilliant red sand, and pine forested mountain slopes. The Southern-most contribution of the Great Basin stands alone, a lacolith whose top is nearly 10,000 feet above Sea Level. Flying North over her forested tops at 15,000 feet, you can see that Pine Mountain's base relief juts up in reverse "L" formation. Her jagged Southern footstool drains into the St George Valley. Occasional meadows break up the dense pine stands on her top, and a formidable ring of cliffs limit access to the clean air up on her rugged slopes to just a few places.

At summer's end, when our little mule Calamity Jane was two and 1/2 months old, Chantra and I decided to take her with us on a Saturday afternoon ride up on Pine Mountain. We would ride into Mill Flat from the trailhead on the west slope of Pine Valley's Northern arm that starts at Broken Arrow Ranch. With Calamity ponied along side my Sulpher Herd Mustang, Kate, we rode the trail along the lush pasture leading to the mouth of the canyon. The canyon narrowed and the air cooled as we climbed the rocky trail, interupted by an occasional wild raspberry bush. Sheer vertical walls would continue to define the canyon's passage until we crested out into the verdant meadows of Mill Flat. About half way up the 7-8 mile trail, we stopped to let the horses drink from a spring before fording its clear pools. Calamity had been following easily along, quartered behind me without much fuss. We left her mother behind in St George, expecting only a 4-5 hour absence. Momments earlier I commented to Chantra how calm and willing she was for such a young baby.

As I dismounted Kate, Calamity leaned back on the rope, catching me off guard, and pulled free. She instantly came to life, wheeling about and bolting full speed back down the trail, dragging her lead rope and belching her vaudville-like cry in perfect time with the fast disappearing sound of her hoof-beats. CALAMITY! I remounted Kate and hurried back down the rocky trail, not able to keep up, and hollering to Chantra to just take her time coming back down. As the mouth of the canyon opened back up, I pushed Kate to full gallop down the sandy trail as it followed the fences around the green pastures of Two Feather's Ranch to the trailer. DOUBLE CURSES! No mule! And no track any where around the trailer.

I turned and rode all the way back to where she got loose and started tracking her where ever I could find sign. Her compass must be pointing to momma. At the very first opportunity, she turned south after exiting the cliff walls. Her trail took her up the lower, steep hills at the foot of the mountain, through dense scrub and along the fence that seperated wilderness from ranch. Down into the next drainage I went after her, finding an occasional hoofprint or rope-drag. The going was slow and soon, it was too dark to see.

TRIPLE CURSES!! Pine Mountain stands between her and momma! It just isn't possible to get home directly up and over the mountain. Oh, what was I thinking by leaving Calamity's momma home? Visions of Calamity getting tangled somewhere, or feeding the local lions club in the forboding darkness depressed me as I drove home that night--sure that I had lost my first mule. Thank goodness for good friends. After a few phone calls, I had men on horseback and men in Powered Parachute pledged for the next morning's search.

Back to the trail head Sunday Morning as soon as it was light enough to see--this time I brought Calamity's momma just in case. Standing at the front gate of Broken Arrow Ranch was a graying, wirey woman named Rose who has never been caught without an ear-to-ear grin on her radiant face. In her left hand was Calamity's leadrope. Calamity stood trembling with anticipation as she smelled the momma she had been so anxiously hunting for all night. Rose had found her coming back down the trail to the trailhead just minutes earlier--apparently realizing that there was no other way home--with a small, but deep cut on her right ear. What a Calamity! True to her name, her CompAss had run her right into the very center of trouble, and true to her namesake, she lived to tell the story!!

Monday, February 11, 2008

TheCowboy of Wild Horse Mesa

Out in a remote corner of Utah's Grand Staircase looms an impressive table top mesa that juts due East from Escalante to the Colorado river, ending abruptly near the famous Mormon Pioneer crossing, Hole-in-the-Rock. A formidable barrier all by itself, 50 Mile Mesa is surrounded by impossible country. To the North, a high desert plain is broken by the twists of the Escalante river gorge with its myriad of slot canyons and hidden arches. Follow its rugged South slope into another maze of intense red rock and serpentine narrows that empty into what is now Lake Powell. This country's solitude is self-imposed, forced by the unbreachable moat of the mighty Colorado and its tributaries. Many a luckless wanderer has perished in this unforgiving land for want of refreshment, or for taking a fatal mis-step--including the dear wife of my boyhood scoutmaster, Kimo.

Those who have survived the strict demands of her barren sandstone punctuated with well-springs of life will testify of her desperate beauty. And those who have tricked a living from her unwilling grasp are the grittiest of cowboys who still live in this last, great wild west.

The Cowboy: not the hillbilly, beer-gutted simpleton of red-neckdom--but the real Cowboy; he lives by nature's universal laws and a common-sense code hardened by brutal necessity. Tougher than nails, and blessed with a survival instinct born of experience, the Cowboy understands the circle of life and the power behind all of creation. He still exists in this place, but
faces certain extinction inside of this generation. The world will trudge on, unaware, when he finally slips away for good. There may continue to be hobbiests and dreamers like me, but the real cowboy who lives by what he can coax out of hoof and horn raised on the grand 50 mile mesa and her lower benches is the stuff of legend. Battles with land managers, pencil-pushing beaurocrats, extremist groups, and East coast politicians like dick durbin of Illinois and bill clinton of Pennsylvania Avenue have taken their fatal toll. Small men by comparison: Its a bitter irony that they who aren't worthy to lick the Cowboys' boots have transferred the care of this magnificant land to middle managers who are doomed to failure for mis-understanding natural law, and who are condemned by the law of unintended consequences.

September past, I got to live several days with one such Cowboy on 50 Mile Mesa. Steve Westhoff's bearing is soft-spoken and understated, but don't underestimate this 50 year old giant of a man. He executes every motion with certainty of purpose, and each word from his mouth is uttered efficiently. This Cowboy runs his outfit in one of the last places in America without a safety net. He punches longhorns where any slip in preparation, or any injury could vanish him into the same fraternity as Charles Lindberg and Emelia Erhart.

We rode hard those days. It started at the base of the Mesa after pulling our gear and stock up from the valley floor to a set of corrals at the base of the trail. We had just driven our trucks and stock trailers up an unusually steep, rutted road that barely passes for such, and more fitted for ATV use. It was midnight by the time our animals were saddled and mules packed for a 2,000 foot ascent to the Mesa's pinioned top. By moonlight, we struggled up the ledgy trail, leading our horses and doing our best not to get stepped on as they scrambled over boulders and washouts. The next three days started early. Some 200 head of cattle had to be located and rounded up into the naturally corraled box canyon near the cozy old cabin on the East end.

Sagebrush flats, low meadows and juniper groves interspersed with steep, bouldered pinion stands were our theater of operations--grandstand to the specticle of creation. The cattle could be found in bunches here and there, some--a day's ride from camp. Pushing longhorns through densely forested and steep canyons almost proved impossible, but we got nearly every animal we sought. The risks we faced from the terrain were punctuated by the threat from some of the cattle who would gladly skewer you or your mount with needle sharp horns given the chance. We were also told, "shoot to kill" if we happened upon any of the remaining, ill-tempered wild cattle roaming the deep and hidden hollows like the ghosts of the ancients who lived here centuries ago. Three days of shouting and whistling took my voice, but three days in the saddle lifted my soul.

The cost was high. Two good horses lost their lives by the time it was over. One, my big hearted appaloosa riden by my pard Jay, sustained a fatal leg injury in the back of a truck on the way back down that brutal dirt road to the bottom lands. The other, one of Steve's horses, fell to its death while scrambling off the ledgy trail from the top.

Legend has it that Zane Grey's famous book Wild Horse Mesa was written of this place. God was good when He hid it the way He did, saving it for the lowing of cattle and the Cowboys' idle banter around the evening campfire. Its a shame that the world's politicians have blazed their way into her inner sanctum--leaving the scar of their track across her face.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Tom Sawyer deal

So this morning, Cousin Torrey wanders out to the corrals where Tyler stood reluctantly driving his poo-fork through the muck. Torrey absent-mindedly tossed a ball up, catching it on the way back down. Tyler seemed not to notice, suddenly putting more effort into his job. Torrey started to bounce the ball, more insistent this time; a candy bar protuding temptingly from his rear pocket. Tyler went on shoveling, surveying his last scoop with the eye of an artist. Torrey slipped closer to the corral panels and Tylers mouth started watering for the chocolate nuget loosly seated in Torrey's jeans.
Torrey said: "Hey Homey, you gotta work?"
Tyler turned: "Oh, hi--didn't see you there," cocking his head a little as he fawned over his handiwork.
"I'm gonna play some ball, too bad you have to work. You'd probably rather work, wouldn't you?"
Tyler rubbed his chin: "What do you mean work? This ain't work." Turning back to a fresh, steamy pile of green manure, poking at it gently with the rake. "Its not every day a boy gets to muck stalls and savor the aroma of wet corrals." He then artfully lifted the small pile, turning it into the wheelbarrow with the flick of his wrist. Stepping back and forth to note the effect, he raked some older biscuits from the edge, pausing again to critique the now cleaner corner of Rusty's stall.
Torrey observed each and every motion Tyler made with a new respect: "Hey Tyler, can I try it a little?"
"Well, my Dad is pretty picky about how this is done. There's probably only one boy in a couple thousand who can do it well enough to please him. I'd hate to get my butt kicked for a half-donkey job."
"Awe, come on Tyler...let me just do one stall. I'll be careful and do a real nice job. Please????"
"....I just...boy, last time I got my butt kicked, I...I...Oooooohh, it hurts just thinking about..."
Torrey interupted enthusiastically: "Hey, I'll give you half this candy bar!"
"Well, really--I don't.."
"OK, how 'bout the whole thing?!"
Tyler made great show of handing the rake to Torrey with trepidation, as if to say, "its my butt on the line here."
Tyler climbed the panel's rungs and sat, perched lazily on the top of the corral, peeling the wrapper from the prized bar of sugared paradise: "Hey, don't miss that clump over next to the water trough."

Tyler thought to himself, this is pretty neat! As Mark Twain said of Tom Sawyer, "He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign." Mark Twain's TOM SAWYER, Chapter 2

This partly true adaptation of Tom Sawyer's painting the fence happened early, and Justin, happy to get his own repreive, took the pictures. If Torrey had thought to bring two candy bars, I might have deleted the proof that he indeed knows how to operate a poo-fork. But alas, I must post the proof positive, Torrey can never feign ignorance at home again. Uncle Mike, you owe me.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

20 Mule Team .....what?

Here is a fascinating piece of mule history that has ascended to full trademark status. Today, the 20 Mule Team Borax trademarked logo is widely recognized, but probably holds an understated place in our collective consciousness. The legendary effort to get raw borax ore out of Death Valley by mule train ended in 1889, lasting just over five years. 120 years later, we still think of Borax when we think of 20 Mule Teams. How did you fill in the blank when you saw the title?

The story of the 20 mule team should hold particular fascination for the mule afficianado. Relating it all would be redundant, but there are some highlights worth mentioning here. The fascinating basics are thus:

Between 1883 and 1889, the twenty mule teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley. The company didn't lose one mule or have one wagon break down during this time.

Each team pulled two wagons that held 10 tons each and a steel water tank behind for the consumption of the mules. The total gross weight each team pulled was 36 and 1/2 tons.

The round trip was 330 miles and went from nearly 200 feet below sea level to over 2,000 feet above. It covered some of the most unforgiving country in the world--over crude roads blasted into the desert.

"Swinging the team around a curve in a mountain pass tested both driver and team: one mistake could spell death for all. As the team started around a sharp curve, the chain tended to be pulled into a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon. To keep the chain going around the curve and not pull the team straight over the edge, some of the mules were ordered to leap the chain and pull at an angle away from the curve. These mules — the pointers, sixes and eights — would step along sideways until the corner had been turned. Swinging a curve successfully was an awesome demonstration of training and teamwork." Borax: The Twenty Mule Team.Published by U.S. Borax Inc.Undated (1980s-'90s)

"Chosen for their intelligence and ability to lead the others, the first two mules in the train were aptly called the "leaders." The next 10 mules were known as the "swing team," workers that did not need special training beyond responding to commands such as "stop" and "pull." Following the swing team came the "pointers," "sixes" and "eights" — the pairs specially trained to leap over the chain when the mule train turned a corner. These mules were trained to respond to commands by name. Finally, the "wheelers" were the last pair in the train. These mules, or sometimes draft horses, were the largest and strongest of the pack animals." Borax: The Twenty Mule Team.Published by U.S. Borax Inc.Undated (1980s-'90s)

Teamsters used whips made of rawhide that were 24 feel long. Some were reputed to be able to flick a mule's ear 25 feet away. Using the whip required two hands and full body input.

Check the links below for gripping historical reading. There you will find facts, legends, and some insights into the men who lived this job.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

General Washington, what about those genes?

So what is in those genes? The history of the American Mammoth Donkey, now a rare breed, seems sketchy and difficult to discover in sound, peer-reviewed journals or articles. Perhaps there are some dusty books in a library somewhere that contain good information on Mammoth donkey history, but I'm not seeing it in cyberland. Currently, argument exists over whether today's American Mammoth Donkey is even a seperate breed. Perhaps all we have left is the dilute aftermath of Henry Ford's legless invention. For many years after mechanized transportation entered the scene, the Mammoth Jack seemed to disappear from radar and the American landscape.

Breed registries exist that help inform the renewed interest in Mammoth Donkeys, but they are relatively young, somewhat less rigorous than many horse registries, and, I wonder--relatively underutilized? The unique American need that drove the development of certain Mammoth characteristics prior to the industrial era has shifted to a newly unique American need--recreation. Finding the answer to the genenetics quest in the Jack world often requires following the oral traditions of breeders. That doesn't mean the information out there isn't useful, but its veracity is suspect. I think many American breeders of Mammoth Donkeys may just be a little less formal in their approach to breeding than the dollars available in the horse world have demanded of quality horse breeders. The mood among Mammoth breeders may be reflected in the stated thoughts of one such producer that one "can never go wrong with good confirmation and disposition for any animal no matter where they came from."

At one point, the American Mammoth Donkey was considered its own breed. Producers developed it to fit the unique needs of the American farmer, starting with George Washington himself. My web-based search on the subject produced the following abstract from 1917 in the Journal of Animal Science. (For the entire abstract, See

"The American Jack Stock is a distinct breed made by blending imported breeds from Spain, France, and the Islands of the Mediterranean Sea.

"General George Washington was the first breeder in America, and our own Hon. Henry Clay imported and introduced the best obtainable foreign blood. Messrs Young and Everett of Montgomery County, Kentucky, in 1840 imported a great old jack named Mammoth from the Province of Catalonia, Spain. The Leers of Bourbon County imported two famous jacks named Napoleon and Moro Castle. The latter jack and a grandson of Imp. Mammoth went to Tennessee as foundation sires for that state. Later Tennessee breeders became extensive importers from Spain. But the business of importing jack stock ceased some years ago when it was found that the breed of American Jack stock is superior to any similar stock in Europe. (emphasis mine. PG)

"The breed of American Jacks is the product of constructive breeding performed during seventy years mainly by intelligent breeders in Kentucky, and Tennessee, but Missouri is now adding some substantial contributions to the breed." J. J. Hooper and W. S. Anderson,
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station

Today's photos reflect 3 generations of Mammoth Jacks, starting with my Rusty above. The next photo in line is of Sugarcreek Oakie, his sire. The last photo is of Oklahoma Diamond, his paternal grandsire--all three fine specimens in my view.

I am ever thankful to George Washinton for fathering this free nation, for I live the American Dream. Whats more? I should like to add kudos to this father of the gentlemen's pursuit of Mammoth Jacks and mules!

Here's an example of what is in my genes. Happy 13th Kailee!! (She can't date until she is 18 and yes I have a gun...or more)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

SuperBowl Sunday: The REAL game!

HEY KIDS! Chore time! Pause the game--score is 7 to 3, Patriots. Its a better life since the invention of TIVO and I'm chomping at the bit to get outside because we are getting some serious snow. We've lived here for 10 years and this is only the second real snow I can remember.

But there's no action--kids are resisting. The TV is already on Pause. So I up the ante. "I'll help if you come now. Otherwise you are on your own."

Without skipping a beat Tyler says, "Naw Dad, we'll go out later. It takes longer when you help." Pause the game--score is 1 to 0, kids. My bluff has been called, but I'll take the compliment. Push play.

Justin is next with the blitz, "Yea, later. What do we gain by doing it before the game is over?" Oooooh...tough play.

Only one play left. Its Dad with the Hail Mary pass deep into the end zone. "I'll tell you what you'll gain," I say with a suddenly confident smile. "You'll avoid the certain gluteal pain that comes nanoseconds after properly applied leg pressure." TOUCHDOWN! Extra point. Game over--the score? Dad 7, kids 1. "No problem Dad, we'll go now."

Uncle Mike just happened to be in town on errand. It snowed hard enough to cap those widow peaks!